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South Africa
February, 2009

(This is a long blog, sorry....I had a 26-hour travel journey from South Africa to San Jose, so I had a little bit of time on my hands.)

My up-and-down season stayed down again this week as far as tennis goes, but the other side of my travels led for a more exciting week than I thought I could handle.

With a week off after Australia, my girlfriend flew down to South Africa to meet me and go on a 3-day safari. It's something I always wanted to do, and now seemed like the perfect time. Giving my very understanding girlfriend about 48 hours notice before her departure to get time of work, her also very understanding boss gave her the thumbs up and we were off to the African bush.

Some of you reading this have probably been on one of these before, but I pretty much went in blind not knowing how it works. With the lodge we booked at (thanks to a connection from a friend and fellow touring pro Kevin Ulyett), we opted off renting a car and driving 6 hours, instead taking the 1-hour private plane ride. Now, I've been lost in Venezuela, in border disputes in the Czech Republic and was about to head into the bush with lions running wild, but for some reason, jumping on an 8-seat airplane freaks me out. Luckily, my girlfriend was completely unfazed or we would have been catching a bus.

The morning of the flight the skies looked rough, but no rain yet.....as we caught the bus to runway it started to sprinkle.....and as we got to the office on the runway....bang!....thunderstorms!...great. Now, I was really freaked out. As soon as the thunder and lightning stopped and it regressed to a steady downpour, the pilots, who looked younger than me, assured me it was fine to fly. My favorite part of takeoff being when they were using their sleeves to wipe the condensation off the inside of the windshield on takeoff - just like I do it when I'm driving I guess.

The flight was pretty smooth after takeoff as we headed north to almost the Botswana border. It was amazing as there was almost no sign of life anywhere, we were really in the bush. As we started to descend, there was no sign of a runway in sight until the last minute when this little dirt patch about three times the size of my driveway appears and the pilots bounce their way in there nice and smooth.

After the excitement of the flight, I was ready for a little relaxation before the game drive in evening. However, we got an early start to animal viewing as we turned the first corner towards our lodge and ran into a pack of 15 elephants. The guide quickly turned the car around and backed towards the elephants. When asked why we were backing in, he says,"Sometimes the ele's get a little annoyed and charge the vehicle. This way allows for a quicker escape." Oh...ok. Well, I guess I survived that flight. Why not get charged by some elephants?

After 2 days of drives through the wild, we saw it all - lions, giraffes, zebras, rhinos, elephants - you name it, we saw it. It's a pretty amazing experience to be hands on with the animals like that.

I got back to Johannesburg on Friday in time to prepare for the tournament. One tricky thing about playing in Joburg is that the city lies at about 4,000 feet (that's a complete guess, I have no idea how high it actually is.) So with high altitude, it's a little harder to breathe and a lot harder to keep the ball in the court. It's quite a weird feeling to hit a forehand, the same forehand you've hit a million times in your life into the corner and have it go flying off the fence.

Since my doubles partner Ross Hutchins, a fellow doubles specialist, was busy qualifying for the singles main draw, I had to look elsewhere and stumbled into a hit with Jo-Wilifred Tsonga on Monday. That went well, and with an open offer, I jumped at the chance to hit with him every day after. Getting the opportunity to spar with those top players is awesome for your game development as they hit the ball so much bigger than other guys. It requires such a higher level of focus just to rally with them. Also hitting with Jo, I got the added bonus of sharpening up my French for the week! And...if you're undecided whether or not you like Tsonga, he is one of the nicest guys on tour and treats everyone so well. I think he is one of the true up and coming stars of our game.

After a few days of practicing, Hutchins and I thought we were ready to go, but ran into to South African's who played lights out tennis. We didn't play poorly at all, but these two - Van Der Mwere at 6'4" and Wolermans at 6'6"  - could not miss a serve and we didn't see a break point the whole match. After a one-hour match, I was on a 26-hour journey to San Jose to play the next tournament.

I was asked by another a fan that week, how tough it was to travel so far just to lose in the first round. It really made me think how crazy it is that I traveled from the U.S. to India to Australia to South Africa and back to the U.S. and only played 5 matches. It's pretty crazy to think and seems quite crazy. But, I think that is what adds to the rush of playing every single match. It's why you heart races and your hands sweat before you walk on court every single week. I love it and hope I never lose that feeling. If I do, I think that will be the time to stop.